GKIDS Retrospective: Tales of the Night

We continue our series of reviews chronicling all of the (non-Studio Ghibli) animated films distributed by GKIDS Films — some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world — and how they hold up for a young American audience.

The entire retrospective is found here, and this time we’ve got…

Tales of the Night (2011): Michel Ocelot, director

What’s it about?

Two children (one girl, one boy) and an older gentleman gather in a movie theater to tell stories and bring them to life. Each assumes a role in the story, and through a bit of magical machinery, they are given costumes and hairstyles for the performance.

These short segments are not much more than interstitial bits of connective tissue tying the rest of the film together. The bulk of the film is composed of six short segments. Each is a fairy tale from around the world, and most of them focus on a prince or princess of some sort. The six stories are: The Werewolf (medieval Europe), Tijean and Beauty Not Known (The Antilles and the Land of the Dead), The Chosen One and the City of Gold (ancient Aztec), The Tom-Tom Boy (West Africa), The Boy Who Never Lied (Tibet), and The Doe-Girl and the Architect’s Son (medieval Europe).

In addition to their different settings, the stories also each bring unique qualities to the film. The standouts (in our opinion) are Tijean and Beauty Not Known and The Chosen One and the City of Gold. Both will stick with you long after the credits stop rolling.

The most striking feature of Tales of the Night is its animation style. Director Michel Ocelot (who also directed Azur and Asmar, which started off our GKIDS retrospective) was always fascinated with shadow puppetry. Indeed, many of his earliest experimental films were genuine shadow puppet plays (because they were cheap). When it came time to make this film, he chose to mimic that aesthetic but use CGI to enhance the backgrounds, which are an explosion of vibrant colors and imagery.

What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?

Each of the six short stories that comprise Tales of the Night takes place in a different time and culture. They include medieval Europe, Tibet, The Antilles (and the Land of the Dead), Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The stories are all variations on fairy tales, so despite the specific locales, they remain timeless with universal themes. Still, the diverse flavors of each of the six segments creates a delicious cultural gumbo that nourishes the viewer.

This is a French film, so the original language and voices are all in French. The Blu-ray and DVD come with an English dub, which is actually quite good. Normally, I find most English dubs to be painful listening, but I’d actually recommend this one.

Will my kids like it?

I’m going to cheat here and say, “It depends on your kid.” Tales of the Night is stunningly gorgeous and absolutely well worth watching. My kids (particularly my 8-year-old daughter) loved it and didn’t get fidgety at all. The animation style, though, might  not be to everyone’s taste. Some kids might lose interest or grow frustrated with the lack of detail in the characters’ faces and clothing.

“Lack of detail” is putting it lightly, too. All of the characters are silhouettes the entire way through. They are not much more than shaped shadows with eyes. This both makes the film feel like a shadow puppet play and encourages viewers to engage deeper and use their imaginations.

Kids with short attention spans or who simply “don’t get” why the film looks the way it does will likely drift off. Still, older kids and those who are willing to give it a chance will be richly rewarded.

Will I like it?

See above. If you need to see characters’ faces to connect with them or can’t bear the idea of watching a shadow puppet play for 90 minutes, then this might not be your jam. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry, because – quite honestly – you’re missing out.

Tales of the Night is one of those rare films that is completely unlike anything you’ve seen before. At the beginning, you think it can’t possibly keep the style fresh and compelling through to the end. Before you know it, however, you’ve completely forgotten that all of the characters are solid black shapes. You’re totally absorbed in its beauty.

Is there anything objectionable for young kids?

Not really. This really is a family movie. One of the segments is set in Africa, and the female characters are topless. Since the characters are all silhouettes, this is only subtly noticeable, but it is apparently. Eagle-eyed kids will notice. (Mine did.) There is also one death seen on screen, but there’s no blood. The character just falls over. Aside from that, there’s nothing objectionable for even the youngest viewers.

How can I see it?

The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD and can be ordered from the usual places, including Amazon. You can also stream instantly from Amazon and YouTube. Special features to the Blu-ray are slim and only include a couple interviews with the director and the U.S. trailer.

Final word?

Just watch it. Give it a chance. It’s a phenomenal film well worth viewing, especially if you fancy yourself a fan of animation. If you ARE an animation buff, Tales of the Night is required viewing.

Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. He's the founder and owner of The Roarbots and also a contributor to Syfy Wire, StarWars.com, and GeekDad. On top of that, he hosts The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, which celebrates creativity in popular culture, science, and technology by talking to a wide variety of people who contribute to it.

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